The way Anne Arundel schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell sees it, America is falling behind.
In China, 200 million students are studying English, but 50,000 American students are learning Chinese. China's population is nearly five times that of the United States.
As early as this fall, the schools chief hopes to begin a six-year Chinese sequence that would teach Mandarin to seventh-graders.
In high schools, Maxwell hopes to offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes in the language that could help students land a job in diplomatic service, national security or in business.
"If we want to be globally competitive, America can't continue to be a monolingual country," Maxwell said.
School board members are planning to discuss the program this spring.
It is unclear how much adding the courses to the curriculum would cost, largely because it is not known how many schools would get the courses, how many teachers would be hired or the amount of materials that would be needed.
"Ultimately, I'd really like to see some feeder systems specialize in a language," Maxwell said after a recent school board meeting, "maybe start teaching it in some way in elementary schools, move it up to the middle schools and then offer the advanced level courses in the high schools."
Classes in Chinese have begun in schools in Baltimore and in Baltimore, Cecil, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Chinese is only the first step for Anne Arundel schools, said Maxwell, who also hopes the schools can one day offer Japanese.
He is also considering offering courses in Arabic and Korean, languages that officials in the Bush administration have said are critical to national security.
The federal government has offered more than $57 million in grants to encourage the teaching of those languages.
Chinese is among the five most popular language courses at the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute, which prepares diplomats and others to advance U.S interests overseas and in Washington.
Trends in foreign language education have often coincided with shifts in the world's political and economic landscape.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States competed with the Soviet Union in space exploration, many schools began offering Russian classes. Japan's robust economy in the late 1980s inspired some American schools to offer Japanese.
Research from the Asia Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes Asian-Pacific languages and culture, found a 20 percent increase in the number of colleges offering Mandarin between 1998 and 2003. But the group estimates that there are barely 500 teachers of Chinese in the United States.
"Oftentimes the interest goes ahead of the number of teachers available to provide that service," said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
"There aren't too many programs at the college and university level that offer programs [to train] Chinese language teachers," he said.
To address the shortage, the College Board, which produces the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, has joined with China to bring 250 guest teachers from China to the United States by 2009.
"There are teachers in Maryland, placed through the College Board Chinese guest teacher program, but not in Anne Arundel County," Selena Cantor, director of the Chinese language and culture initiative at the College Board, wrote in an e-mail.
Cantor said the growing interest in offering the language has prompted her division to set up presentations about the teacher-exchange program in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties for the end of March. No schedule has been set.